By Gary West — It will be called the Kentucky Derby, but, make no mistake, the race that will be run Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs will be entirely different from the roseate affairs of the past. A large crowd will mill about for much of the day, some of the young men smoking expensive cigars, if only because they can’t fit a Porche into their mouths, and many of the women brandishing extravagant hats, if only because they missed out on wearing them during Easter.
The strikingly handsome horses will stride purposefully onto the track and into the shadows of the Twin Spires, the University of Louisville band no doubt will burst forth with “My Old Kentucky Home,” and a few people in the grandstand might even look up to a mackerel sky in an effort to prevent an ocular overflow. But it won’t be the same race.
The horse that wins in September probably won’t be the horse that would have won in May. Everything has changed. Churchill made its move expecting the world to adjust, and the world probably will. This change to Sept. 5 will greatly help some horses and probably compromise the Derby chances of some others. That’s the new variable, the new unknown. And it’s the new consideration for the Top 20.
The Kentucky Derby will be run Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., over the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Based on points accumulated in designated stakes (including races in Japan and Europe), the field will be limited to 20 starters, with four also-eligibles.
No. Horse (Trainer) Starts-Wins-Seconds-Thirds Earnings Sire
1. Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) 4-3-0-1 $498,900 Constitution
Comment: Barclay Tagg appears to be turning the volume up as March 28, the day of the Florida Derby, approaches. Tiz the Law worked three-quarters of a mile Sunday in 1:13.80 at Palm Meadows, where the surface doesn’t encourage fast times. And, most impressively, he worked with Realm, a 7-year-old stakes winner of $534,565 who recently finished fifth in the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes. Although a proven and capable competitor, Realm, even with more urging, couldn’t stay with the Holy Bull Stakes winner. Tiz the Law left the pole about 1 1/2 lengths behind his elder and gradually cut into the margin, catching Realm at the top of the stretch and then pulling away late to finish about two lengths in front before galloping out strongly. Tiz the Law’s Holy Bull remains the best performance to date by any 3-year-old, and he was on a path that would have taken him to a peak effort on the first Saturday in May. But the first Saturday in September?
2. Nadal (Bob Baffert) 3-3-0-0 $753,000 Blame
Comment: As Bob Baffert said, “Speed is his weapon.” Nadal used his most powerful weapon to win Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and, apparently, to reserve his spot in the Kentucky Derby. It was, however, an egg roll victory, meaning it was covered in sweet-and-sour sauce: It showcased his talent but at the same time exposed his weakness. First the sweetness: Nadal was pressed and challenged for virtually every step of the 1 1/16 miles and never capitulated, running the opening half-mile over the officially “sloppy,” but very dull, surface in 46 seconds, swatting away an early challenger and then another and then two more at the top of the lane before holding off the long shot Excession in deep stretch. For some perspective, consider the prior race on the card, the Azeri Stakes, where the lightning bolt known as Serengeti Empress ran the opening half-mile in 46.49 seconds, opening up an advantage of four lengths on her way to a six-length victory. (The half-mile splits in the five other two-turn races on the day ranged from 47.08 to 48.50.) The two horses that raced closest to Nadal early, No Parole and American Theorem, retreated into the ruck, finishing last and next-to-last, but Nadal kept going, turning back every challenge. To run so fast early and still finish with determination — well, it was a rather remarkable performance for a young colt making only his third start. Now the sour: Nadal chugged through the fourth quarter-mile in 27.06 seconds, and his final time for the 1 1/16 miles, although solid, hardly sparkled. He completed the distance in 1:44.97, compared to Serengeti Empress’ 1:44.46 and Night Ops’ 1:44.09 in the Essex Stakes. So what does it all mean? In his works leading up to Saturday’s race, where he went in company, Nadal appeared to be tractable. But with the No. 1 post position in the Rebel, he had to use his speed to avoid being blocked behind horses on a sloppy surface. So from here, to balance both the sweet and the sour, Nadal looks to be the sort of horse who can run the opposition off their feet, as he did at Oaklawn, but who can also run himself into vulnerability. Still, Nadal improved significantly in the Rebel: In the San Vicente, his speed figure progression, based on personal calculations, was 104 (for the half-mile)-104 (for three-quarters)-91 (final number); Saturday, it was 104-96-94. And so from here, he looks like a potential star who’s going to be even more formidable when the pace cools down, as it’s likely to do when he stretches out even farther and when he’s able to mete out and control his speed.
3. Authentic (Bob Baffert) 3-3-0-0 $331,200 Into Mischief
Comment: Authentic seems to be in great form, and so the rescheduling of the Derby might not work to his advantage. By September, some of these could catch up to him. On the other hand, he’s lightly raced, he’s inexperienced, and he’s a late foal (May 5) — and that can be a shaky tripod, even for a colt as talented and precocious as Authentic, on the first Saturday in May. (By the way, about two-thirds of all Kentucky Derby winners are foaled in February and March.) By the calendar, Authentic still would have been a 2-year-old on Derby Day. So the push back to September will give him time to mature physically and to fine-tune his game. He’ll be better in September, but some others could be much better. Authentic, of course, won the San Felipe easily while leading throughout. He might not have such an easy time April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby and certainly not in the Kentucky Derby, where he’ll probably be forced into playing a stalker’s role.
4. Sole Volante (Patrick Biancone) 5-3-1-1 $266,310 Karakontie
Comment: Following his determined runner-up performance in the Tampa Bay Derby, Sole Volante returned for an easy half-mile (50.15 seconds) Sunday at Palm Meadows. From here, he looks like he might be one of those not benefiting from the move to September since he’s one of the few 3-year-olds who has given the impression that he’ll be ready for 1 1/4 miles in May. In the Tampa Bay Derby, he ran the fourth quarter-mile in 23.80 seconds, and on a day when no winner rallied from more than two lengths back after the opening half-mile on the main track, he rallied behind a dawdling pace from next-to-last to finish second. His connections had indicated Sole Volante will make his next start in either the Kentucky Derby or the Wood Memorial. Presumably that now means the Wood Memorial.
5. Charlatan (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $67,200 Speightstown
Comment: How good will he be in September? He might be positioned much too high here; after all, he never has faced stakes company. On the other hand, we might look back in a couple months and marvel that he ever was rated so low. But this much is certain: Having won his two races by a total of 16 lengths in head-turning times, this guy’s a gifted and talented runner. He can put the bubbles in the champagne. Saturday at Santa Anita, in a small but talented group, he immediately took the lead and just cruised around there, or so it seemed. When a couple challengers got close, he spurted away like a bar of soap in the shower, drawing clear to win by more than 10 lengths and completing the mile in 1:36.24. For context, in the day’s very next race, the 4-year-old stakes filly Ce Ce, a winner of $366,600, won the Beholder in 1:37.33 for the mile, a clocking that was more than five lengths slower than Charlatan’s. So what’s next for him? Well, suddenly there’s no pressure to push him into one of April’s major preps in order to earn Derby points. The rush is gone. Churchill will designate some races this summer that will offer qualifying Derby points, and so it’s reasonable to wonder, How good will he be in September?
6. Maxfield (Brendan Walsh) 2-2-0-0 $354,412 Street Sense
Comment: Nobody benefits more than Maxfield from the Derby’s move to September. His getting to a Derby in May had become nearly impossible, but now —well, he could suddenly become one of the Derby favorites, based on his best effort from last year. Last October, he gave what was arguable the best juvenile performance of the season when he rallied strongly, circled the leaders and won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland by more than five lengths. But then an ankle injury forced him to the sidelines. Last Saturday, he worked a bullet five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.80. It was only his fifth official workout of the year; so he probably will be ready for a race in mid-to-late April, in plenty of time to begin a march to a September Derby.
7. Honor A. P. (John Shirreffs) 3-1-2-0 $122,200 Honor Code
Comment: Having as much classic potential as any horse on this list, Honor A. P. should benefit from the additional time the Derby’s move to September affords him. He worked an easy and restrained half-mile Monday at Santa Anita in 49.40 seconds, and the work was more impressive than the time might suggest. A pony accompanied him to the pole; so he began slowly and gathered momentum throughout while running in the five path. And then he had a prolonged and strong gallop-out, proving difficult to pull up. Making his first start in five months, he finished second to Authentic in the San Felipe and figures to improve from there. He’s to make his next start April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby.
8. Ete Indien (Patrick Biancone) 5-3-1-0 $333,156 Summer Front
Comment: Monday, on the turf at Palm Meadows, he fired a bullet, breezing seven-eighths of a mile in 1:23.20. He worked with Shrewdness, a 4-year-old English horse who has yet to race in this country. Ete Indien began with a one-length advantage and ran easily, waiting on his companion. Shrewdness moved alongside at the top of the lane, and then Ete Indien responded, quickly pulling clear by about five lengths. This is a speedy, tractable and responsive colt who possesses gears, as he showed while winning the Fountain of Youth by 8 1/2 lengths. He’s likely to return in the Florida Derby on March 28.
9. Independence Hall (Michael Trombetta) 4-3-1-0 $250,000 Constitution
Comment: Since disappointing in the Sam F. Davis, he seems to have been largely forgotten, even though he was among the most highly regarded prospects in the division at the start of the year. Based on his 12-length victory last November in the Nashua Stakes, he still deserves to be included here. And, actually, his effort in the Sam F. Davis was admirable, too: He shaved 25 seconds for the fourth quarter-mile, and he put more than 11 lengths between himself and the third horse, Ajaweed. Independence Hall has had four workouts since that loss, the most recent being five-eighths in a flat minute on Sunday at Tampa Bay. He could refurbish his reputation March 28 in the Florida Derby.
10. King Guillermo (Juan Carlos Avila) 4-2-0-1 $240,350 Uncle Mo
Comment: He took advantage of a quick, speed-favoring surface to win the Tampa Bay Derby at 49-1, beating Sole Volante by more than four lengths. But King Guillermo will remain something of a mystery until at least his next outing. Is he as good as the Tampa Bay Derby suggests, or did circumstances put him in the winner’s circle? Owned by Victor Martinez, a five-time MLB all-star, and named for the ballplayer’s late father, King Guillermo enjoyed the soft pace and a near-perfect trip, but he finished well, too, running the fourth quarter-mile in 24.30 seconds, and galloped out strongly, leaving a positive impression. The plan had been to train up to the Derby, but that plan, like so many others, belongs to a different world.
11. Enforceable (Mark Casse) 8-2-2-2 $347,150 Tapit
Comment: Enforceable is the 7-2 favorite in the morning line for Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Although hardly flashy, he’s a reliable and consistent performer, and he deserves the favorite’s role. Of most importance, he should appreciate the added distance — the Louisiana Derby will be run at 1 3/16 miles. He’ll appreciate a clean trip, too. When second in the faster division of the Risen Star Stakes, Enforceable had his momentum interrupted twice but still rallied strongly when clear. And, of course, his pedigree pleads for more distance: He’s by Tapit, who has sired three winners of the Belmont Stakes, and Enforceable’s dam, Justwhistledixie, won the Bonnie Miss at nine furlongs.
12. Gouverneur Morris (Todd Pletcher) 3-2-1-0 $161,500 Constitution
Comment: Sunday at Palm Beach Downs, Gouverneur Morris worked a bullet five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.51 with the 3-year-old maiden winner Palm Springs. With only four qualifying points, Gouverneur Morris is one of those who could benefit greatly from the move to September. Now that the Blue Grass Stakes is off the schedule, he seems more likely to return in the Florida Derby.
13. Eight Rings (Bob Baffert) 4-2-0-0 $236,951 Empire Maker
Comment: One of the nation’s most highly regarded juveniles after he won last year’s American Pharoah Stakes by six lengths, Eight Rings was training as if he was ready to step back into the spotlight, and maybe the winner’s circle. But he won’t benefit from the disruption of the stakes schedule, at least not immediately — he was to race Sunday in the Sunland Park Derby, which has been cancelled. But because he has only 10 qualifying points, he could take advantage of the Derby’s move to September, using the time to acquire more points and raise his game. Hard to say where he’s going to turn up, but Bob Baffert, his trainer, said the colt is “nominated to everything.” Monday at Santa Anita, he worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.80 with the veteran Dr. Dorr.
14. Silver State (Steve Asmussen) 4-1-2-1 $136,106 Hard Spun
Comment: The second-choice at 6-1 in the morning line for the Louisiana Derby, he worked an easy half-mile Monday. Steve Asmussen has pointed this colt to the Louisiana Derby for months, and the Hall of Fame trainer is masterful at hitting his targets. This race Saturday is the target, or at least the first major target, and it’ll be no surprise if Silver State steps forward with the best effort of his career. Silver State, of course, finished third in the faster division of the Risen Star and second, after a troubled trip, in the Lecomte Stakes. He should be poised for a significant move forward, and a recent workout — three-quarters in 1:11.60 — just might be the signal that a big step is imminent.
15. Dennis’ Moment (Dale Romans) 5-2-0-0 $171,800 Tiznow
Comment: Next to Maxfield, Dennis’ Moment might benefit most from the Derby’s move to September. He, of course, finished last as the 6-5 favorite in the Fountain of Youth. Whatever went wrong, or was wrong, that day hasn’t been discovered, or at least hasn’t been revealed. But it was such a dreadful effort that it shoved the colt’s chances of just getting into the Derby into the long-shot column. He got nothing positive out of the experience, nothing he could use going forward, and he has only 10 qualifying points. But the Derby has become a different race from the one that has been run annually in May. And suddenly Dennis’ Moment is back in the game—if, of course, his connections can solve the mystery of the Fountain of Youth.
16. Basin (Steve Asmussen) 4-2-1-1 $361,000 Liam’s Map
Comment: Basin’s seasonal debut was better than it might appear on paper. Making his first start in six months and his first around two turns, he was a distant third behind Nadal in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes. But he raced close to Nadal’s rapid pace and was actually within a length of the lead at the top of the stretch. From there he faltered, but still outfinished everybody but the two horses that finished in front of him. He should move forward from that effort.
17. Modernist (Bill Mott) 4-2-0-1 $288,800 Uncle Mo
Comment: He fired yet another bullet Monday, going five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.00 at the Payson Training Center, working in company through a thick fog with a nice 3-year-old named Sprawl. This was Modernist’s third workout since his upset victory in the Risen Star Stakes; all three have been bullets. In his entire career, going back to last summer at Saratoga, he has recorded five bullet workouts, three of them in the last two weeks. True, the worktabs at Payson aren’t extensive; they don’t overflow with workers; and so a bullet there isn’t like a bullet at Oaklawn. Still, Modernist is clearly improving as he returns to Fair Grounds for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. Saturday, he’ll have to overcome an outside post position and a different pace scenario from the one he faced in the Risen Star, but if he runs well here, he will have proven himself.
18. Wells Bayou (Brad Cox) 4-2-1-0 $245,293 Lookin At Lucky
Comment: He makes his debut here for two reasons. First, the disrupted stakes schedule, with the Derby’s move to September, could work to his advantage. Second, he could get clear and control the pace in the Louisiana Derby, and a good performance there could propel him onto the road to Kentucky. An improving colt, he set a lively pace in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park and held on for second, and Saturday he’ll be making his third start this year.
19. Chestertown (Steve Asmussen) 4-1-2-1 $61,540 Tapit
Comment: Purchased for $2 million as a 2-year-old, Chestertown has improved in his last two outings despite not getting the sort of pace he probably needs if he’s to be successful. And since then he had a head-turning workout with Silver State. So he’s another who could benefit from the disrupted stakes schedule. He’ll make his stakes debut in the Louisiana Derby, where he’ll enjoy the longer distance and where he could get a more a favorable pace.
20. Thousand Words (Bob Baffert) 4-3-0-0 $235,000 Pioneerof The Nile
Comment: Thousand Words will probably head to New York and the Wood Memorial in an effort to return to form. In the recent San Felipe, he raced a length back after the opening half-mile and from there steadily retreated, finishing fourth, more than 11 lengths behind Authentic. Afterwards, Bob Baffert said Thousand Words was too close to the lively pace. Perhaps he’s a miler. Or perhaps he will be more effective if taken back and allowed to make a late run. That could be the plan for his next outing at Aqueduct.
21. Mischevious Alex (John Servis) 7-4-1-1 $344,230 Into Mischief
Comment: He hasn’t had a published workout since his victory in the Gotham. After he won the Swale at Gulfstream, his connections indicated the colt would focus on one-turn races. That’s why they went to the one-turn-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. But a closer look at his Gotham performance suggests his connections were probably correct initially when they indicated his immediate future would be confined to one turn. He won the Gotham by two lengths in a pedestrian, 1:38.80, running the second half-mile in 51.54 seconds. Yes, the surface was very dull; nobody ran fast. But in winning the Stymie the same day, Diamond King ran the second half-mile in 50.87 seconds; Will Sing For Wine won a one-mile maiden race by running the second half-mile in 50.43 seconds. A son of Into Mischief, Mischevious Alex is out of the Speightstown mare White Pants Night, who won two races in her career, at three-quarters of a mile and 5 1/2 furlongs. From here it looks like, at least for now, he’ll do his best running at distances of one mile or less. On the other hand, he has earned his shot in the Wood Memorial on April 4.
22. Max Player (Linda Rice) 3-2-1-0 $173,500 Honor Code
Comment: He hasn’t had a published workout since March 8, when he worked three-quarters of a mile at Belmont Park in 1:13.89 in preparation for the Wood Memorial on April 4. He appears to have considerable room for development and improvement and could be another who benefits from the Derby’s move. When he won the Withers Stakes, he raced five-to-six-wide in the second turn but drew clear to win by more than three lengths. It was a relatively slow race. But there’s potential, and he could become an intriguing player with a big step forward in the Wood.
23. Excession (Steve Asmussen) 9-1-1-3 $288,612 Union Rags
Comment: Excession was the beneficiary of Nadal’s scorched-earth approach to the Rebel. In the lane, where just about everybody was looking for a pile of straw to collapse into and recover from disputing a rapid pace, Excession was still running. Or plodding. From last, despite some trouble, he got up for second, finishing within a length of Nadal. But if they had run around again (most of them, frankly, could not have made it), he wasn’t going to get by the winner. Nadal opened up again on the gallop-out. But Excession obviously stepped forward and could make some more noise down the road, wherever it leads.
24. Three Technique (Jeremiah Englehart) 6-2-3-0 $204,750 Mr. Speaker
Comment: Like Basin, Three Technique ran better in his fourth-place Rebel than might be apparent. He raced four-wide in the first turn, tried to advance into a hot pace approaching the second turn and ended up four-to-five wide there. For a moment, he looked like he might get the prize, or at least the consolation, but having emptied out all his energy, he had nothing left to give in the final furlong. This is a nice colt. He’s not performing at the high level of some, but given more time he will at least try to move in that direction.
Gary West, a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper, is an HRI contributor